Turning Back the Biological Clock, Barbara Strong Gives Birth After Menopause—with a Donated Egg

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

By the time she was 38, Dr. Barbara Strong had already suffered two heartbreaking setbacks in her efforts to start a family. She didn't begin trying until 1983, at age 35, but soon miscarried; the next year she delivered a stillborn son. Now there was more bad news: She had breast cancer. "Deciding to take chemotherapy was difficult," says Strong, 42. "I knew it could stop my ovaries from functioning, and that made me ambivalent because I wanted a baby in the worst way. But my priority had to be survival."

All her life Strong had wanted children. From the time she was growing up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a painting contractor and a payroll clerk, she had cherished the idea of a house full of scrapping kids. "I knew people with big families, and they always looked like they were having so much fun. I wanted that more than anything," says Strong, a psychiatrist. Yet it took nine years of marriage to overcome the reluctance of husband Bob Wilson, an aerospace manager, who always said, "Next year, dear."

When the cancer treatments upset her hormone balance and plunged Strong into early menopause, it seemed that her domestic dream would wither along with her ovaries. The doctors she consulted about her remaining childbearing options "looked at me as though I was crazy," she says. "They'd say, 'You're 40, and you've had cancer. Forget it.' But I'm someone who doesn't hear the word no. I wanted a family and was determined to get one."

Strong and Wilson arranged to adopt their daughter, Julie, now 18 months, in April 1989. Two months later, while scanning medical journals. Strong stumbled on an article about embryo donation for women who had gone through menopause prematurely. She contacted the article's author, Dr. Mark Sauer, 35, an assistant professor of obstetrics at the University of Southern California—and found herself talking to a fertility specialist who didn't just say no.

The technique that Sauer has helped pioneer allows postmenopausal women to become pregnant with eggs donated by another woman and fertilized in vitro with their husbands' sperm. The embryos are then implanted in the wife's uterus, and the pregnancy is supported by hormone injections. Legally and medically, the new procedure creates yet another hybrid parental category somewhere between adoption and surrogacy. Emotionally, for Barbara Strong, it was a godsend. "Being pregnant was just the most wonderful feeling," she says. "I didn't want to give up that joy." The fact that she would be carrying a baby not genetically her own "wasn't of too much concern to me. I already had one daughter who wasn't genetically my daughter, and yet she was 100 percent my daughter."

Before admitting Strong to his program, Dr. Sauer referred her to cancer specialists to satisfy himself that she was in no special danger from the hormone treatments. With a view toward compatible hair and eye color, he then introduced her and Wilson to Sue Scott, a travel agency manager to whom he paid a $1,500 fee for her services as an egg donor. "It's a matchmaker thing," says Sauer, who has two children of his own and a third on the way. "You put people together, and if it doesn't work, you try somebody else."

Strong liked Scott, and on June 9, 1989, three of Scott's eggs, fertilized by Wilson's sperm, were implanted as embryos in her uterus. Nine days later she learned she was pregnant. "I was so happy, I don't even remember what we did to celebrate," says Barbara. After a fretful but normal pregnancy, she delivered daughter Christie, now 8 months, by cesarean section. She missed the experience of a natural childbirth, but "I was so relieved to have my healthy baby girl in my arms, I didn't really care," she says.

Nor does she worry about possible legal complications—namely, maternity claims that could crop up at some future date. In fact Strong and Wilson keep in touch with the biological mother of their older daughter and swap photos and visits with Scott. "Being a donor, I get to relive my own pregnancies," she says. "We share a very intimate thing." However, Sauer cautions, "The one real drawback to all this is that we don't know the future legal status of the babies." For the time being, a recent southern California court ruling gives a genetic parent a stronger legal claim than a gestational parent.

Medically, however, the procedure appears to be a success. Five of Sauer's first seven egg recipients became pregnant; four delivered healthy babies (including one set of twins). Ethically, some question the wisdom of a technology that overrides the biological clock. "Men have fathered children into their 70s, and no one has had any big moral qualm," says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist in Minneapolis. "But there's some disquiet about older women becoming mothers—maybe because people think they should be around at least through adolescence."

Barbara Strong worries that the medical wizardry of which she is the beneficiary may encourage women to wait too long, as she did. "I don't want to give the impression that you can postpone having children indefinitely," she says. "You can't." Yet Strong, impelled by that dream of a big, boisterous family, continues to challenge the odds. Since Christie's birth, she and her husband have undergone two more $8,000 egg donation procedures—with no success—and plan to keep at it. "We got two babies in one year. Now I'm hoping for twins," she says with a smile.

—Marjorie Rosen, Marie Moneysmith in Los Angeles

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